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  • Mike Martinez

Congressional Pathfinders: Catherine Cortez Masto

Catherine Cortez Masto became the first Latina United States senator when she won the election in 2016 to succeed Harry Reid, a long-serving Senate minority leader from Nevada. She was a genuine pathfinder in the Senate, but this accomplishment was hardly surprising. Cortez Masto was accustomed to leading the way. Throughout her career, she advanced into positions that few Latinas had occupied before her tenure. I discuss her life and career in my forthcoming book, Congressional Pathfinders: First Members of Congress and How They Shaped American History,

She was born in Las Vegas, Nevada, on March 29, 1964, to a father (Manny Cortez) of Mexican descent and a mother (Joanna Musso Cortez) of Italian descent. Manny Cortez served for many years as head of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority as well as a Clark County commissioner and county attorney. Well-connected in Las Vegas and throughout Nevada, Manny Cortez was friends with Harry Reid long before his daughter won a US Senate seat.

Catherine Cortez earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of Nevada-Reno in 1996. Four years later, she earned a law degree from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Admitted to the Nevada state bar in 1990, she pursued a legal career, handling both civil cases in private practice in Las Vegas as well as criminal cases as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C. She married Paul Masto, a U.S. Secret Service agent whom she met while she was coordinating a visit from President Bill Clinton to Nevada as she served as chief of staff for Governor Bob Miller.

After her stint in Washington, D.C., Cortez Masto returned to Nevada to serve as assistant county manager for Clark County, In 2005, she launched a campaign to serve as the state attorney general. She was no longer simply Manny Cortez’s daughter, although her famous father’s connections undoubtedly smoothed the way for her rise through the political ranks. Now Catherine Cortez Masto would build her own public persona.

She won the election. A 2008 newspaper article described her as “graced with an angular face framed by a bob of jet-black hair,” a powerful woman who “would make great television” with a little practice and seasoning. She appeared as a “tough, youthful but mature attorney general, standing on the steps of a corrupt mortgage lender or corporate polluter, railing on behalf of the great state of Nevada.” Her supporters characterized her as a work horse, not a show horse. “She pursues popular initiatives with little fanfare, head down, studying, avoiding conflict,” the article explained. “It’s her style. It’s who she is.”

From that position, Cortez Masto searched for a higher post. She eventually recognized an opportunity to advance her political career after Democratic Senator Harry Reid announced in March 2015 that he would not seek reelection the following year. As arguably the most prominent Democratic politician in the state aside from Reid, the attorney general was heir apparent for a U.S. Senate position. Reid made his preferences plain when he publicly threw his support behind Cortez Masto’s bid.

State Republicans wasted no time in attacking the presumptive Democratic nominee. National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Greg Blair dismissed her candidacy as a continuation of failed Democratic policies. “By lining up behind the clueless national security strategies of Harry Reid and Barack Obama, Cortez Masto has proven that she’ll be little more than a rubber stamp for her party in Washington rather than a fighter for Nevada families,” he said in a public statement.

Ignoring her opponents’ criticism, Cortez Masto easily won the Democratic primary election. In the fall, she faced Republican Joe Heck, a brigadier general, physician, and U.S. congressman. Because the 2016 U.S. Senate contest in Nevada was one of the most competitive races in the country, outside interest groups poured tens of millions of dollars into the candidates’ coffers.

The 2016 race was also a presidential election year; thus, the Senate battle reflected voters’ concerns over the candidates at the top of the ticket. Congressman Heck initially opposed businessman Donald J. Trump’s unlikely bid for the White House. When Trump became his party’s nominee, Heck suddenly discovered the man’s virtues, only to denounce the candidate after a 2005 tape surfaced featuring Trump gleefully bragging about sexual assault. Throughout the campaign, Heck struggled with his public persona. At times, he appeared to be a garden-variety moderate Republican, opposed to the Affordable Care Act, in favor of defunding Planned Parenthood, and suspicious of climate change science. On other occasions, he pandered to extremist voters by playing to their fears of immigrants and people of color.

Cortez Masto had a far easier time staking out her political positions in the fall campaign. Rejecting Trump’s demonization of immigrants, the Democrat announced her opposition to a proposed border wall and sought to energize Latino voters by emphasizing the ground-breaking nature of her candidacy. She seldom missed an opportunity to tie Congressman Heck to Trump, calling him “an absolute stooge for these right-wing nut cases.” On most issues, she supported Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

On Election Day 2016, the Democrats suffered an unexpected defeat nationally when Donald Trump captured a majority of the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote, to become the 45th president of the United States. The state of Nevada provided good news for Democrats, however, when Cortez Masto edged out Joe Heck to become the state’s newest senator. One reporter called her victory “a bright spot on an otherwise grim Election Day” for Democrats.

Heck captured a majority of the vote in 16 of Nevada’s 17 counties and equivalents, but Cortez Masto won Clark County, where most of the state’s citizens live, by 82,000 votes, giving her a 27,000-vote advantage across the state. In the final tally, she captured 47 percent of the vote (520,658 votes) to 45 percent for Heck (494,427 votes) and a smattering of votes for third-party candidates.

Sworn into office in January 2017, Cortez Masto became a frequent and predictable critic of the Trump administration. Her support for traditional Democratic positions such as environmental protection put her directly at odds with the Republican president, who relished adopting retrograde positions, seemingly not out of ideological belief but solely to antagonize his liberal opponents. The Nevada senator said she believed that climate change was caused in part by human activities despite Trump’s contention that the world is not growing hotter, and his belief that scientific evidence is little more than a fabricated hoax. Not surprisingly, Cortez Masto also announced her opposition to the U.S. Department of Energy’s plans to construct a nuclear waste repository in Nevada.

On health care, the Nevada senator announced her support for retaining and expanding the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Worried that insurance providers were fleeing the marketplace in record numbers, Cortez Masto co-sponsored the Marketplace Certainty Act, a measure she hoped would bring stability to the healthcare marketplace.

After a mass shooting in Las Vegas, Cortez Masto expressed her support for gun control measures, earning her an “F” grade from the National Rifle Association. Along with California Senator Dianne Feinstein as well as many of her Democratic colleagues, Cortez Masto sponsored a bill to ban bump stocks, a type of ammunition that allows shooters to fire bullets rapidly without having to reload. Predictably, the measure stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

As a high-profile Democratic woman serving in the US Senate, Cortez Masto was expected to lobby for women’s rights, and she did. She supported a woman's right to choose whether to have an abortion and she supported same-sex marriage. Owing to her position on these issues, she received significant support as well as funding from Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit organization that provides reproductive health care for women in the United States and around the world.

With respect to immigration, she continually denounced the administration’s hard-line approach on mistreating illegal aliens. She was especially worried about the abuses perpetrated by the US Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) agency. In April 2018, Cortez Masto and four senators sent a letter to the ICE acting director, Thomas Homan, expressing concern about the standards and methods used to detain pregnant women. Fifteen months later, the senator co-sponsored the Protecting Sensitive Locations Act requiring ICE agents to seek approval from a supervisor before entering “sensitive areas” to search for illegal aliens. The bill also required annual reporting of enforcement actions in these areas.

As part of her policy agenda, Cortez Masto was vitally interested in U.S. housing policy. In April 2019, she and 40 of her colleagues sent a bipartisan letter to the Senate Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Subcommittee praising the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Section 4 Capacity Building program and expressing disappointment that the president’s budget proposal had eliminated funding for the program. Along with 11 other senators, Cortez Masto sponsored the Home Ownership Dreamers Act mandating that the federal government could not deny home mortgage loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or the Agriculture Department based only on an applicant’s immigration status.

It was a difficult time to be a new Democratic senator. As a member of the minority party, Cortez Masto knew that many of her bills would not pass into law, and she would seldom enjoy the power and prestige of serving as a Senate leader. Always attacking the Trump administration to defend Democratic policies left little time for the senator to play offense and carve out an identity of her own.

She did, however, enjoy one great success early in her term. In November 2018, she became only the second woman--and the first Latina--to serve as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, an organization dedicated to electing more Democrats to the U.S. Senate. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer hailed her selection as crucial to his party’s future success. “Catherine Cortez Masto was our first choice for DSCC Chairwoman because she has demonstrated the attributes we want in a leader: she breaks glass ceilings, is hardworking, astute politically, an outstanding fundraiser and respected by every member of our caucus,” he said.

As of this writing, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto remains in office. Much of her future as a political figure has yet to be written. Unlike some figures portrayed in the book, her time has not come and gone. She is not entombed in history. In any case, whatever else she accomplishes--whatever highs and lows she experiences in her public life--she will always be an important “first” in American political history, a genuine congressional pathfinder. She will forever be the first Latina to serve as a United States senator.

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